Sick and Tired of All That Purity: A Roundtable on Contemporary Figuration

Rózsa Farkas, Elise Lammer, Megan Rooney, Katharina Wulff, Lydia Yee, and Isabella Zamboni in conversation


Jill Mulleady, Pico Boulevard, 2019. Courtesy: the artist; Fitzpatrick Gallery, Paris; Galerie Neu, Berlin. Photo: Marten Elder


Is figuration in contemporary art rising from the ashes once again? Even if former edicts on media’s or language’s death and resurrection have proven flawed due to art’s endemic ebbs and flows, recent exhibitions, market data, and literature show an arc of mounting interest in representational work consolidating after the end of Zombie Formalism in the mid-2010s. The following roundtable, gathering figures varyingly tangled in this phenomenon—gallerist Rózsa Farkas, curators Elise Lammer and Lydia Yee, and artists Megan Rooney and Katharina Wulff—aims to outline its features and underlying forces. Are current figurative works a renewed “return to order” echoing far-right drifts, or do they come out of a need to find a language of political struggle, to rethink what “human” may mean? A demand of agency over reality, or a respite from it by way of fiction, if not escapism? And is capital or the institutional machine exhausting all this once again?

This discussion came about before the world was absorbed by the global pandemic, before body and space were revealed as even more heightened day-to-day sites of risk, before the boiling state of social and racial contracts, before the global economy was about to recede far more drastically than it did in the Great Recession of 2008. As such, it manifests concerns around resistance, the body, and epistemology that are still, if not more pressingly, connected to representation today, while motivating further analysis in the post-COVID-19 era.


ISABELLA ZAMBONI: I am wondering if we can truly speak of a resurgence of figuration in recent years, and if yes, what forces triggered this renewed interest. For art historians and critics of the 1980s and 1990s, figuration was condemned as a regression away from modernism and the avant-garde, a return to order” that sinisterly echoed right-leaning political movements, from Neue Sachlichkeit just before Fascism to Neo-Expressionism during Thatchers England, Kohls Germany, and Reagans United States.1 It is curious to see the current attention to figuration developing in times of global political authoritarianism, nationalism, and the far/alt-right.

RÓZSA FARKAS: If you think about current art that is increasingly used, co-opted, or encouraged by the far right, it is not supposedly “traditional” work, but work that employs more typically modern modes of production—such as the appropriation of imagery (a related gesture to that of the found object). I think it’s important to remember that modernism carries with it some kind of authorial moralizing tendency—utopian ideals that often best serve those considered in the mainstream, and so perhaps modernism can become an aesthetic tool of hegemony. I would like to add here a quote by Hannah Black from a roundtable discussion in frieze about something we should all question when we think of modernism, namely that it is inherently avant-garde:

I’ve been trying to think about the appropriative vitalism of modernism as a constitutive trace of contemporary art. I’m wondering whether this era of critique, of noticing the ways modern art has historically relied on racial thinking—its borrowing from a perceived outside full of nourishing but incoherent energies—might actualize something you’ve been talking about for a while, Suhail [Malik, codirector of the MFA Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London], which is the abolition of contemporary art as such. In a sense, the Western discovery of abstraction is more about a specific Western history of figuration; abstraction was arrived at through an injection of this different visual language that comes via the colonial encounter. There’s an example in Peter Linebaugh’s The Many-Headed Hydra (2000) about rich people eating medicine made from the dead bodies of poor people and “Libyans.” Maybe that’s a literal expression of the same process, in which certain forms of visual innovation are made possible by borrowing from an outside.”2

Several factors contribute to a renewed interest in figuration. The end of Zombie Formalism—due to a combination of flimsy conceptual justifications and market failures—means that figuration can appear as painting’s opposition to this short and unsuccessful moment. Yet it must be said that throughout recent art history there has been a general recurring oscillation between figuration and abstraction.
Additional factors, I think, are our ever-increasing mode of communicating through representational imagery, our inability to see the structure behind how we experience our reality, and, lastly, the desire to find a language through which to insert (identity) political struggles within contemporary art and its discourses. Kerstin Stakemeier has spoken of post–internet art’s employment of the surface as a by-product of our inability to see the workings of hyper-financialized capitalism. In this vein we could see a return to the representational as an evolution from this, an attempt not only to cognitively map one’s reality and experience in a human way, but also to create a visual space through which to imagine other possibilities.

KATHARINA WULFF: I think the initial question contains a thesis, and I am not sure I can agree with it. As a German, I have a particular perspective on this. The whole argument on naturalism or figurative painting has much to do with totalitarian doctrines. Hitler and his particular taste in painting comes to mind. Then of course also my experience with Socialist Realism. An Italian might have a completely different perspective, considering how early forms of abstraction, as in Futurism, were very naturally embedded in Fascist aesthetics. An American will have entirely different views.
I also must refer to my experience as a woman painter. I should perhaps not start theorizing about Otto Dix, George Grosz, and others, but consider instead a number of virtually unknown women artists. The painter Jeanne Mammen, or the photographer Annelise Kretschmer, would open up a completely different view on the alleged return to an interest in figuration. Maybe there is always some form of radicalism inherent in anything figurative, and also some form of risk taking, as Rózsa was discussing. In my mind, “abstract” (concrete, nonrepresentational, formalist) painting is always also very abstract or maybe totally abstinent when it comes to expressions of political inclinations. It can be seen as perfectly in tune with a capitalist world order. Figurative painting in art historical terms has had overtones of religiosity, of fascism, of socialism, of fantasy, of realism, and any other possible worldview. Maybe art historians have strong opinions concerning this, but I figure they tend to be very opinionated by definition, and subject to fashions of thought, which seem to be mostly conceptual and less and less phenomenological, descriptive, aesthetic.

ELISE LAMMER: Indeed, we’ve always wanted to partition history into movements and periods, and although it’s hard to escape from a linear and causal perspective, (art) history is actually chaotic, simultaneous, and multilayered. The art of the last half-century has been quite cyclical, as Rózsa pointed out, in constant oscillation between figuration and abstraction, and while it’s tempting to match the current tendency toward figuration with a rise in political fear and conservatism, there is much more to read into it.
It seems that since 9/11, we’ve been witnessing a resurgence in attempts to depict, mirror, or comment on “reality.” The destruction of the towers, but particularly the physical and symbolic void that was left in their place, gave birth to a sort of total reboot of reality and its representation. I understand this seminal moment as the perfect postmodern event, one that created a dramatic shift in perception through destruction and void. When the 1980s delusive fantasies of postmodern thinkers like Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord came true, the resulting ideological collapse induced a lot of fear.

LYDIA YEE: I agree with you, Katharina and Elise: art historians and critics are often quick to identify a “return” as if it were part of a fashion cycle. Neue Sachlichkeit and Neo-Expressionism came out of two very different social and political moments. I don’t think we can make a simple correlation between the art and the government or regime during which it was made. The 1980s also saw the rise of the Pictures Generation, graffiti, and AIDS activism. Right-wing populism and authoritarianism have been on the increase in recent years, and artists who are working figuratively today are doing so, in part, to be able to communicate their stories and raise pressing social and political issues. Many of these artists are women, black, and/or from LGBTQ+ backgrounds, whose bodies and concerns have previously been allowed little space, particularly in the larger, more mainstream art institutions. It’s also not surprising that there seem to be fewer straight, white, cis male artists who have been making compelling figurative painting. Or at least you don’t see their work as much.

RF: I agree with you, Lydia, on the consciousness-raising insinuation, and I’d add that some figurative representation also functions to resituate the philosophical foundations of humanism. Hamishi Farah paints both black portraits and animal portraits, collectively terming them nonhuman portraits. This subtly distances his project from ontologies that construct a privileged human subject through the objectification (and animalization) of Others.
And to circle back to a couple of points made by Katharina and Lydia, I think it’s worth noting how we are not speaking from a wholly varied position even though we are a few voices—many of the painters being mentioned are black, yet none of us are. Like you said, Lydia, most of this “rise” in figuration is not coming from cis white men, yet actually they are of course making figurative paintings (and most likely selling for higher prices) even if their practices aren’t so much included in the recent discourse. (And is this actually better? Does this mean that cis white male painters are avoiding their work being viewed through their “identity,” avoiding their practices being flattened or isolated?) The abstraction we see as abstinent of politics (as you said, Katharina) is a very Western art historical tract. In many Soviet-era countries, for example, the introduction of abstraction could be viewed as specifically against a totalitarian regime that preferred Socialist Realism, thus the act of abstraction itself could be inherently extremely politicized. I guess all of this is to say that we really aren’t the ideal parties to fully unpack the questions you ask, Isabella. But then again, there is only so much that one can do in a single text!

IZ: I cannot disagree with you, Rózsa, on the limits of this endeavor. And I recognize the criticalities of art history or critique that many of you point out, but other than forcing multifaceted phenomena into categories or linear, causal trajectories, the aim of this roundtable is to trigger reflection around forces behind tendencies also by observing past and possibly fallacious receptions of the same phenomena. I agree with Rózsa on the current need to find a language of struggle on the part of unheard subjectivities, as Lydia also underlined, and the need to rethink what “human” may mean. I believe that another structural part in this subject-world relationship, hence how we relate to reality, is the mechanism of processing and acquiring knowledge, as Rózsa was mentioning to some extent. Today, in an ever-accelerated fragmentation of a shared reality, cognition is structured around a struggle to retrieve, store, and value information, predominantly visual information,3 risking extremes of overload, disinformation, or alienation. Under these conditions, may we see figuration as the result of a need to have agency over reality, or may we conversely recognize this language as a wish for respite from reality by way of fiction, if not escapism? I am thinking of tendencies to link representation and resistance, as many of you mentioned, in particular identity politics or queer agendas. And, by contrast, a resurgent interest in magic and the gothic.4


Tala Madani, Shit Mom (Deluxe), 2019. Collection of Alexander V. Petalas. Courtesy: the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Lee Thompson


RF: I can agree with this in part. But I’d say, rather than being about agency over reality, what I mentioned above is more the case: to try and represent reality in a time when it is perhaps hardest to represent (although of course one has never been able to truly represent the experience of one’s reality), and to portray imagined alternatives. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the many frustrations of the left is that it apparently does not offer alternatives (I am writing this on the week of the upcoming UK election, so I’d maybe disagree that the left doesn’t offer alternatives). I think in terms of agency we can think of how we have to credit much of this wave of figurative work by black and queer artists as being partially responsible for demanding a more diverse form of programmatic representation within institutions. While we know of and I’m sure will discuss this mode as not a perfect one, it has still been progressive and important for pushing the spaces that are in fact the most traditional (colonial, racist, sexist)—spaces that through a presentation of the avant-garde have in fact been able to maintain a tradition and status quo of exclusion.
In terms of magic, I don’t want to speak so much of that, as I am currently thinking much more about whether figurative work can be radical work within the terms of its recent market surge. But I do want to mention this quote by Larne Abse Gogarty from an article in Art Monthly:

“If we think more carefully about the aesthetic tropes of mysticism and technological accelerationism, we can see that they are also steeped in the history of entanglements between the avant-gardism and politics dating back to the inter-war years in Europe. Rudolf Laban, a Dada Zurich associate and the founder of modern dance, established and lived in the esoteric, back-to-nature Monte Verità commune near Ascona in Switzerland where he worked with others such as Mary Wigman, whose work engaged with ritual, witchcraft and East Asian dance. After 1933, both Laban and Wigman accommodated and collaborated with the Nazi regime, Laban becoming head of the German Tanzbühne and Wigman choreographing a mass dance for the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympic games. While both Wigman and Laban had fallen out of favor with the Nazis by the latter half of the 1930s, what is important here is the convergence of their mysticism with Nazism, a connection resting on the invocation of an idealized archaic, ‘pre-modern’ era. In terms of the accelerationist impulse that undergirds the cogency between contemporary art and far-right aesthetics, a well-known precedent lies in Futurism’s valorisation of speed, war and death that was famously described by Walter Benjamin as the aestheticisation of politics.”5

KW: I think certain forms of storytelling in painting can be seen as escapist, yes. I am thinking in particular of representatives of Neue Sachlichkeit, whose left-leaning critique of authoritarianism and militarism became impossible to continue after the rise of National Socialism in Germany, seeking refuge in inner emigration by concerning themselves with landscape painting, nudes, or religious motifs. If forms of escapism become the norm, that can mean that there are fewer and fewer artists partaking in any worthwhile political struggle. Maybe it is a form of decadence. Maybe it means that the world will end. Maybe it means that people tend to be bored or disgusted with reality and have no escape but fantasy. It can also mean that figurative painters always face a decision between finding the right political position and orientation, or turning toward escapism, in order to survive. Painters who move around in the domain of abstraction never have to face this decision. In many ways, their work is always escapist. Conceptual art mostly is as relevant in terms of political discourse as crossword puzzles are in the world of encyclopedic knowledge. Considering my own position: I like reality, but tend to highlight its points of interest in my paintings. I do not think I am in need of more “agency over reality.” I am pretty good at being in control of my reality.

EL: I do not think there is a reality that is more or less fragmented or “real”; it’s only how we experience it, which makes it feel fragmented. It’s subjective, and so was and still is any artistic gesture, as well as the gaze of the viewer. This is precisely why thinking about figuration must be done from an epistemological perspective, like Isabella suggests. Displaying recognizable motifs is what makes a work of art figurative. In my opinion, figuration is still a valid strategy to create a shared experience among viewers, and to create a community by means of “recognizability,” and in that sense it’s less elitist than abstraction, for example. A great part of the more figurative work I see these days doesn’t mirror or “copy” anything, and there is little if no resurgence of the type of hyperrealism that was very popular in the 1970s, which attempted to simulate things at a time when simulation was an extravagant fantasy. Given that we’re now over the initial fascination with virtual reality and all the technologies that are currently able to trick our senses, I would argue that today’s figuration is special in its candid attempt at being more introspective and speculative—less “real” in a way. It’s not only magic and gothic, it’s also psychedelic, cute, surrealist. A true celebration of today’s hyper-subjectivity, it’s clumsy on purpose. I may agree with you Isabella, Rózsa, and Lydia, that the agency of today’s figuration might be resistance insofar as it opens, with a lot of empathy and imagination, a perceptive window into alternative ways of being.

LY: If artists believe that figuration offers a form of agency over reality, they are also shaped by their social, cultural, and economic circumstances. And by extension they have a greater degree of agency today in their relationships to communities and institutions and to the market. Artists have been instrumental in using their voices to advocate for political causes, directly support social movements and organizations, and hold museums and also commercial galleries to account over who they are accepting money from and the sources of that wealth. But I agree as well that artists today feel a need to engage with reality through representational forms of art. They are echoing Philip Guston, who famously said in a 1970s interview: “I got sick and tired of all that purity! I wanted to tell stories.”6 A couple of years earlier, Guston had shifted away from abstraction and returned to figuration in response to the turbulent political climate of the late 1960s. His paintings could be seen as a critique of racial segregation and violence. He also satirized US president Richard Nixon in his series Poor Richard. Artists today feel equally compelled to speak out against injustice, promote diverse identities, and address other social issues.

IZ: Apropos of this current need, Lydia, you are preparing a show titled Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium, which will present a new generation of diverse painters who focus on figurative representation of the body.7 Can you elaborate on why you chose to organize an exhibition on this topic and formal language, and why we should call those “radical” gestures?


Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium installation view at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2020. Courtesy: Whitechapel Gallery, London. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire


LY: I am interested in how artists are taking up experimental and expressive modes of figuration at a time of great political urgency, and at a time when photography and video are so pervasive on the internet. The titular reference is open-ended: it could imply that the artists, their subjects, and/or their pictorial strategies are radical. As Katharina pointed out, people bring their own baggage in their response to and interpretation of a particular painting. We are frustrated with the huge problems facing society and want to find ways of channeling this anger productively by taking part in the dialogue. Many issues (political, economic, environmental, moral) are being played out in relation to bodies, particularly those that are queer, black, brown, poor, and from different ethnic and religious minorities. Rather than responding in the same visual language we see on our screens, painting offers a way to engage with the world in a slower, more inventive manner.

IZ: Elise, in the summer of 2019 at SALTS in Birsfelden, Switzerland, you and Samuel Leuenberger co-curated the show BODY SPLITS, which focused on the resurgence of figuration in painting, sculpture, and other media. There were many examples of dismembered, distorted, augmented, or remodeled human figures, and I found them very diverse reflections on what a body is and on current forms of its subsumption. I am thinking of recent discourses like Paul B. Preciado’s, according to which bodies are the first sites of exploitation (in a scenario where biopolitics and the control society extend to the internet and pharmacology). Bodies are not coherent things, but fabricated in a network of images, technologies, and laws.


Cathy Josefowitz, BODY SPLITS installation view at SALTS, Basel, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and SALTS, Basel. Photo: Gunnar Meier Photograph


EL: Historically, depicting bodies has been a mostly male and mostly white celebration of objectified and sexualized female figures. Samuel and I wanted to produce an exhibition that could challenge canon and taste simultaneously. BODY SPLITS indeed included disarticulated, out-of-proportion, and even absent bodies. The human body and its representation was also a good entry point into very contemporary questions, including our relationship to our own bodies, and how a growing individualism is physically expressed by means of self-control and self-management. The exhibition displayed by-products of bodies in pain, like Jesse Darling’s crutches and hospital pillow; Puppies Puppies’ absent and voracious bodies, whose narration was only told by food leftovers scattered throughout the exhibition spaces; nonconforming bodies, including Kris Lemsalu’s double-headed, life-size, godlike figure; but also delegated and abstracted bodies, as demonstrated with Diamond Stingily’s ritual dolls. Far from a survey, we were attracted to practices that carried extremely personal narratives, as if one’s body could be an archival place where the infinite flow of data could be contained, and where dependence (as opposed to independence and individualism) could grant individuals more freedom and empowerment.

IZ: Regarding the need to locate expression on a similarly human scale, Rózsa, back in 2016 you saw the advancing interest in figuration as a response to “new cynicism” and Zombie Formalism speculation—a movement away from “abstract bleached-out uniform beauty, disassociation from the body, heralded by those non-body [rich, white, cis, and male] people” and toward a painting interested in (nonconforming) flesh and human interrelation.For some years, we have seen some sort of speculation developing around this agenda in return. More and more we hear of rainbow-washing, or of African painters breaking through at auction houses.9 As you yourself wrote, “The risk is whether [this] representation garners fetishization.”10 How do you think the work of gallerists should respond to mechanisms of appropriation?


Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings, Get Yourself Clean #1, 2018. Courtesy: the artists and Arcadia Missa, London


RF: This is a really hard question. As a gallerist your role is to promote the work of the artists as well as assist in much of the admin and archiving involved, but also there is of course the need to generate money through the sale of work. So, how to operate within a commercial market while also being sensitive to how that market can co-opt much of the discourse regarding the work is something to always reflect on. In Aria Dean’s essay “Reality Crisis” (2019) she notes that “it is common for work to be spoken of as a window into the artist’s subjectivity over all else,” so one glaring thing for the gallerist to do in practice is to talk about the work—all of the work—and not prioritize the artist’s subjectivity as the terms in which the work is spoken about.11

IZ: I do think, Katharina, that you productively play around exactly what Rózsa is talking about, which is a quasi-religious myth surrounding painting, especially the figurative kind—a belief in the capacity of this medium to convey the author’s “message” due to the seeming immediacy and indexicality of its gestures. I am thinking of the modulation of readability in your works: from an abundance of information to the unfinished; from oneiric or allegoric sceneries to anti-expressionist realism; subplots and major narratives; and references to famed art historical languages.


Katharina Wulff, Grand Hotel Tazi, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Greene Naftali, New York


KW: My experience is mostly that people, men and women alike, read things into my paintings that correlate not with their visual observations, but rather with their thoughts and views on a topic or situation they discern in the painting. Obviously, the immediacy of figurative painting doesn’t mean that its meaning is easily understood (as far as there is something to understand). People rationalize and intellectualize. They very often conflate their feelings and emotions with their opinions and thoughts on certain subjects and begin to invent their own stories. My particular story, thought, or idea is almost always different, and not necessarily of a verbal or argumentative nature. I am much more invested in the visual nature of my observation and how it translates into pictorial language than in what this or that “means” or tells in verbal terms, or what it would mean as an argument in a currently held discourse.

IZ: I wonder if you may have noticed a different interest in your work in recent years compared to the early stage of your career in the 1990s? John Currin recounts how in that decade, “the art world was so guilty and embarrassed after Neo-Expressionism . . . painting was a laughing stock. It was viewed with great suspicion, for being too intoxicating and religious.”12

KW: In my thirty years of painting more or less in a figurative vein, I have never been aware of doing something unfashionable, nor of doing something politically questionable. Although I must say, in painting, and in painting figuratively, I have often (from the beginning, actually) been aware of doing something unusual, or something deemed unusual by my peers. In certain environments I have had the experience that to work seriously at a painting is somehow regarded as an odious activity. If you believed in painting as a still-valuable field of endeavor on its own merits, you were viewed as a traitor. For example in Texte zur Kunst, one of the more serious and influential German art journals, writers agitated against each other and tried to outperform one another with dictates and presumptuous statements that seemed to me demagogic—fascist, even. There seemingly was only one way to do something like painting, and that was ironically—as a comment, not as a genuine act of creation. There was and is wariness of discipleship in relation to the master, the veneration of the master, as patriarchal, a clique, a “circle of trust.”
And yet I was aware of these solitary female artists, like Maria Lassnig, Alice Neel, Paula Rego, and Marlene Dumas, among others. If it seems like I am employing certain strategies, forming a narrative or a way of storytelling in response to that situation, I do not think that is the case. I try to not be influenced by certain axioms, opinions, discourses. I observe the reality around me and endure sometimes even outright attacks, but even when I started painting, and visited painting circles, which served as surrogate and independent art schools in the GDR, I radiated toward circles under the auspices of a woman painter, or stayed by myself and sought the fellowship of women painters on a spiritual plane. The way figures interact or seemingly don’t interact: that is not a ploy. It is my identity, my form of interaction, my sexuality.

IZ: Megan, in your multidisciplinary practice—painting, sculpture, poetry, performance, site-specific murals—figuration seem like a haunting or an attempt to record sentimentality. I am thinking about the oversize limbs clumsily threatening large pastel fields in Animals on the Bed (2016), the archive of faces, sketched like first intuitions or repression traces, of your ongoing series Old Baggy Root (2017–), or the crying eyelashes scratched on bleached, abstract murals in Fire on the Mountain (2019). The human figure seems a takeover or a fatigue, struggling to emerge out of color fields or beside counterparts, a pink finding its way through all other pinks.


Megan Rooney, Fire on the Mountain installation view at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and DREI, Cologne. Photo: Achim Kukulies, Düsseldorf


MEGAN ROONEY: Some time ago I befriended an Irish woman who’s been helping me collect CC41 utility wool blankets produced here during and directly after World War II, designed to cope with shortages of raw materials and rationing on consumables. I’ve been boiling down these wool blankets and staining them in a palette that reminds me of a butcher shop situated at the edge of a desert. Everything is hot and swollen and slightly past its best. Spoiled but not quite rotten. I’ve been thinking about the body’s currency and whether or not this has a kind of expiration date attached to it. The human body as a producer and how the body will be viewed in the future. Thinking about redundancy, not only in relation to personal job loss but also how buildings and architecture can become redundant. The private and personal implications of the end of something.
When I first arrived in London to study at Goldsmiths, there was a lot of hostility toward painting in general, but especially figuration in painting. I felt somewhat alienated from my classmates and unable to articulate what I was doing, and as a result I started to bury or conceal my figures inside different mediums. But I could never really escape them. Somehow the bodies always returned. I’m sitting on the floor of the studio cutting up some old brown leather couch cushions, squeezing the stuffing together, and suddenly there is a limb. Then a piece of orange survival rope loops around the newly formed bulge and I see a neck. I always feel compelled to use paint—it is the material that connects all my work, soaking and drenching the form in color. Marks and stains accumulate over time and in most cases a face is born. I almost always see a face.
I cannot speak to tendencies or trends in art. We all drag our bag of narratives with us wherever we go, and our bodies are attached to these narratives, these stories, these lived experiences. I cannot escape figuration perhaps because I cannot escape my own body. I cannot shut it off or tuck it away; I am bound to it. And my experiences living in the world as a woman force me to examine and confront this battle that continues to rage against our bodies. The silencing of women extends back to the very beginning of Western literature and has followed us throughout history to the present day. At times it feels like being trapped on a roller-coaster doing a loop-de-loop because I cannot see a clear end to this story and the beginning is somehow pushed far beyond the limits of my own experience. Indeed this is a kind of violence that is outside of time. Or maybe that is just simply how it feels.


[1] Alison M. Gingeras, “Wrong Figures: An Alt History of Figurative Painting,” in Unrealism: New Figurative Painting, ed. Jeffrey Deitch (New York: Rizzoli Electa, 2019), 15, 16.
[2] Hannah Black, Howie Chen, Jamillah James, Ajay Kurian, and Suhail Malik, “A Roundtable on Free Speech,” frieze, March 19, 2019,
[3] Joseph Firth et al., “The ‘Online Brain’: How the Internet May Be Changing Our Cognition,” World Psychiatry 18, no. 2 (June 2019): 119–29,
[4] On the magical see Caroline Marciniak, “Wicked! Modern Art’s Interest in the Occult,” frieze, September 18, 2019, On the gothic see Kaleidoskope, no. 35 (Fall–Winter 2019–20).
[5] Larne Abse Gogarty, “The Art Right: Larne Abse Gogarty Charts the Rise of the Right in Art,” Art Monthly, no. 405 (April 2017):
[6] Philip Guston quoted in April Kingsley, “Philip Guston’s Endgame,” Horizon, June 1980, 39.
[7] The show took place February 6–August 30, 2020, at Whitechapel Gallery, London.
[8] Rózsa Farkas, “The Return of Figuration in Painting,” i-D, June 29, 2016,
[9] See “African Artists Breaking Through,”, 2019,

[10] Farkas, “The Return of Figuration in Painting.”
[11] Aria Dean, “Reality Crisis,” in Unrealism, 332.
[12] Cited in Phoebe Hoban, “The Mod Squad,” New York, January 11, 1999,


Rózsa Farkas is the founder of Arcadia Missa gallery and publishers, which she continues to run from London. She has previously taught at University of the Arts London and Zürcher Hochschule der Künste and has curated exhibitions and events at David Roberts Art Foundation, South London Gallery, The Showroom London and the ICA, amongst others.

Elise Lammer is the founding director of Alpina Huus, a research platform exploring performance and domestic space active across art institutions internationally. She is currently the curator of the yearly film and performance programme DAMA at Palazzo Chiablese in Turin, and of SCREEN, ArtViewer online artistsfilms section. Between 2014 and 2019 she was a curator at Kunstverein SALTS in Birsfelden. In 201921 she serves as the curator of Modern Nature: an hommage to Derek Jarman, a garden and artistic programme she develops at La Becque | Artists Residency, in La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland.

Megan Rooney works across painting, performance, written and spoken word, sculpture and installation. Rooneys references engage with materiality and the human subject, they are deeply invested in the present moment: the festering chaos of politics with its myriad cruelties and the laden violence of our society, so resident in the home, in the female, in the body. Rooney completed her MFA in Fine Arts at Goldsmiths College in London in 2011. Her work has been widely exhibited across Europe, most recently at MOCA Toronto (2020); Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (2019); 15th Lyon Biennial(2019); Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw (2019); The Serpentine Galleries, London (2018); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2018); and Tramway, Glasgow (2018). She lives and works in London.

Katharina Wulff lives and works in Marrakesh, Morocco. Recent solo exhibitions include Haus Mödrath – Räume für Kunst, Kerpen (2019); Galerie Buchholz, Cologne (2017); Greene Naftali, New York (2016); Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin (2014); and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (2012). Her work is, among others, in the collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Lydia Yee is Chief Curator at Whitechapel Gallery, where she recently curated Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium (2020) and Is This Tomorrow? (2019) and commissioned projects by Ulla von Brandenburg and Leonor Antunes, among others. Yee has previously held positions at the Barbican Art Gallery in London and Senior Curator at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York. She was co-curator of British Art Show 8 (2015–16), which toured to Leeds, Edinburgh, Norwich and Southampton, and co-curator of Frieze Talks (2018–19).


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